Iconography has an important place in India's cultural tradition, since it has religion and philosophy as its integral part, writes Dr Asha Goswami
Krishna, the theme did not confine itself to the literary works alone, but also has manifested itself elaborately in the art forms of India which include, sculptural representations, icons, images, paintings, murals-miniatures and archaeology (which has its subparts seals — epigraphy, coins and monuments etc). This article aims at providing an idea as to how Shri Krishna has deeply expressed himself through this varied art tradition of India.
Generally, the icons are named as Krishna’s archa-avataras. Sanskrit term for icon is archa-vigraha. Besides, term icon has its parallel in the word, pratima, which means an image. In the form of the science of images or pratimas, iconography has a long history in India, which dates back to the Vedic age. As one of the Rigvedic mantra mentions, one best icon (paramaapratima). After the Mauryan period, elaborate temple iconography developed in India and it continued till the Muslim invasions.
Iconography has an important place in India’s cultural tradition, since the same has religion and philosophy as its integral parts and as the image worship constitutes the very basis of its religion. Since, the religious and philosophical trends originate from people’s mind and thus prove major role in their lives, the icons thus serving as effective modes of expressing this ideals and imparts regarding the favorite icons of Krishna and other gods were also engraved in sculptures along side in the temples.
This art tradition on Krishna was developed on the basis of the Puranas and the Mahabharata. Its main aim was to depict concepts-imageries themes, which are associated with Krishna from time to time. It also aims to delineate new theological themes — or trends and symbols associated with Krishna in the later Puranas. With the result, his icons were engrafted with murals depicting new meanings and dimensions of his concept. Although, the scriptures in this way have provided much fundamental frame-work to his icons and have played a major role in the development of iconography of Krishna, yet differences of treatment of Krishna concept by both these sources (scriptural and icon — Art) is vividly visible.
As any tradition in India has never ceased to grow and further develop, the same trend applies to the Art tradition relating to Krishna’s iconic manifestations. It has developed itself unto a new form to meet the challenges of time and circumstances. It also had developed within its range new theological details from the puranas, and the icons thus made served as very important mediums of worship in the religious scenario of the Indians. Hence, during these times, the iconography of Krishna attained the mega position in the cultural art of India.
Now, to define icon, it is found that generally icon of God or Krishna implies his imitation. Reference to the art tradition of iconography in India be cited in the Vedas and upnishads, in the form of pratikriti. Besides, it is also held that the vedic concept of the Gods has inspired the framework of the icons of Gods, as in the Vedas and the subsequent works Gods are spoken ‘men of the sky or Divo-naras and also having forms like those of the human beings or Nri-peshas”.
As far as Krishna’s iconography is concerned it has developed on the basis of the scriptures like Agamas and the Puranas. These works provide much authentic material on Krishna’s icons, which are said to be of such type like Chala, Achula, meaning those which are very light in weight and heavy in weight, light weight icons are further of four types known as Vautaka (those worshipped daily); utsava (worshipped on particular occasion); Bali (worshipped each day with offering of Prasad); Snapana (sprinkled with holy water).
Where as the Achala icons are made of stone and are of types such as, mula vigraha and Dhruva. The Dhruva icon is further of these types like standing (sthanak), asan (sitting) and shayan (lying), with regard to the determination of dress ornaments symbols which are to be applied the people of those regions according to their cultural standards and trends. Apart from these types of Krishna’s icons other types of icons are mentioned by Krishna’s icons other types of icons are mentioned by Krishna himself to Uddhava in a dialogue in Bhagavatapurana, where he says that his icons can be made of clay, sandal wood, stone, metal, sand, crystal, and of mental imagery (manomaya).
Generally, in the literary tradition on Krishna, the icons of Krishna are made on the basis of the symbols which serve as key notes for making icons individually and distinguishing these form the other. The framework of icons is contemplated according to some symbols in the abstract form and then is expressed in material abstract form of specific symbol. Amongst all the Gods, it is Krishna who has mostly impressed the temple art form of the medieval age, whereby he is shown in multiple form such as Venugopal, alone or accompanying Radha and other gopis during Rasa, holding govardhana mountain; as Yogi in Narada’s vision, as young cowherd boy in the company of Balarama and Subhadra, as warrior killing Kansa and his wrestlers Jarasandha and Shishupala, driving Arjuna’s chariot.
In the icons, Krishna is either endowed with two or four arms. Two armed Krishna is in abhayadana pose. While, four armed Krishna is endowed with conch, mace, chakra and lotus in hands. That various cults have added to varied manifestations of Krishna in iconic forms. For instance, the cult of lotus and of conch, of mace associated with Yaksha (he always holds mace) be mentioned. Besides, mythology has also its role in the framework of the icons where he is depicted along with his family members.
Finally to conclude, let us assume that the iconic representation of Krishna provides us the true translation in lithic form of the texts of the puranas and the epic and thus supplements the same.
The writer is a noted Indologist and authority on Krishnaite Studies